Red Beard, based on a collection of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto, was a film of lasts for Kurosawa.
The film would mark the last time Kurosawa would shoot in black-and-white, it was his last film of the 60s and most importantly it was his last film with Toshiro Mifune.
There is some conjecture over the exact nature of the split between what was until then one of the greatest actor-director collaborations in film history.
One theory from Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince suggests that the financial toll the film took on Mifune as a result of the long filming schedule caused the actor to hold a grudge against Kurosawa.
Kurosawa's script supervisor Teruyo Nogami wrote in her book "Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa" that Hideo Oguni, one of the films screenwriters, told Kurosawa that Mifune was all wrong in his portrayal of Red Beard.
Nogami speculates that Mifune wanted dearly to work with Kurosawa again. She details the last exchange between the two men at a funeral of a mutual friend in February 1993:
Catching sight of a spectral Mifune standing with difficulty in the line of mourners, Kurosawa went over to him and said, as he told me later, "Are you okay? Don't overdo, now." Mifune replied, "I'm okay."
Toshiro Mifune died on Christmas Eve, 1997, having never again worked with Akira Kurosawa.
Nogami wrote of the last time Mifune came up in a conversation between her and Kurosawa. She writes that the director said this about him, "If I ever see Mifune again, I want to tell him what a good job he did. I want to praise him."
He would never get the chance to tell Mifune these words.
In 19th-century Japan, Dr. Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) is fresh out of medical school and ready to begin his work as doctor to the shogun.
Yasumoto finds himself at a clinic where he believes he is simply being called upon to speak to the head doctor Kyoijo Niide (a.k.a. Red Beard).
Before meeting Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), Yasumoto is treated to a tour of the hospital and sees that it is a place where only the poorest and sickest patients are treated.
Red Beard informs Yasumoto that he will become to new intern at the hospital, much to Yasumoto's displeasure.
Seeking to be thrown out by Red Beard, Yasumoto defies the rules and makes every attempt to be fired from the post.
After a few encounters with the patients at the hospital, Yasumoto eventually changes his mind and devotes himself completely to the job.
While out making house calls, the two doctors find a young girl named Otoyo who is being kept like a slave in a brothel. Yasumoto is tasked with rehabilitating Otoyo.
Just as Yasumoto finishes rehabilitating Otoyo, he himself comes down with a high fever and must be tended to by Otoyo herself.
After Yasumoto gets well again a new problem arises. A young boy named Chobo begins stealing food from the hospital. Otoyo feels sympathy for the boy and begins to feed him on the condition that he no longer steals. Chobo breaks the promise only once, but the consequences are dire.
When his parents find out Chobo has stolen they drink poison along with their three children and are rushed to the hospital. Only Chobo survives after being on the brink of death.
In the final scene Yasumoto gets married to the sister of his former fiance who left him before he was assigned to the hospital.
Yasumoto is given the opportunity to work as the head doctor to the shogun, but instead declines so he can remain working at the hospital with Red Beard.
Red Beard may be the finest example of Kurosawa's philosophical message that he aims to put forth in just about every film.
Like many of his films, Kurosawa begins by showing us the world is not a very happy place and that many people within our world are unhappy themselves.
We are, along with Yasumoto, given a tour through what the world is really like. The patients of the hospital lie in their beds, many coughing or struggling to breathe. It is a wake-up call to both the audience and Yasumoto.
But Kurosawa does give us hope that this world can change for the better.
This film, more than any other, sees its characters evolve through a series of life lessons. Yasumoto, who at first is selfish and rude as he attempts to have himself removed from the hospital. He refuses to don his uniform, he drinks sake and relaxes in the forbidden area of the hospital.
It is only when Red Beard saves Yasumoto's life that he begins to start following orders around the hospital.
And it is not until Yasumoto hears the heartbreaking story of one of the hospital's most beloved patients Sahachi that he dons his uniform and devotes himself fully to his work.
Yasumoto comes full circle within the course of the first half of the film. Much of this is due to his shadowing of Red Beard himself. When he follows Red Beard around he sees that the doctor is often selfless, thinking more for the patients than anything else. He bends rules and sacrifices whatever he can for the sake of his patients.
It is these transformations through real-world observation and action that Kurosawa often shows us in his films. Like Watanabe in Ikiru, Yasumoto sees the world differently when he devotes himself to a good cause.
In Red Beard we find that kindness is a sort of contagious disease, in a good way. Otoyo, the young girl who has known nothing but pain and hatred her entire life must, according to Red Beard, be cured in both body and mind.
It is through her rehabilitation that Yasumoto learns still more lessons. When Otoyo refuses to take her medicine by shoving it back at Yasumoto, Red Beard comes in to make an attempt of his own. When Red Beard tries Otoyo comes back with the same reaction, so he tries again and again and again once more until she finally takes her medicine.
Here Yasumoto has learned patience and perseverance.
Otoyo, seeing that there are in fact good people in the world, begins to reciprocate with kindness of her own.
When she breaks a dish that Yasumoto was holding, she sneaks out of the hospital to beg on the streets for money to replace it.
When she looks after Yasumoto when he becomes ill, she learns even more about how empathy works.
Finally, in her greatest show of kindness and the greatest affirmation of her recovery, she helps Chobo by giving him food.
In Red Beard Kurosawa shows us that even those thought to be the most far gone can come back and learn how to be a kind person.
Kurosawa also slips in another indictment of government in the film. Red Beard tells Yasumoto that it is because of the government cutbacks of his budget that he cannot treat his patients. Because of this Red Beard must seek other means to care for his patients.
Throughout his filmmaking career Kurosawa has held government and authority with some disdain.
The one character who remains constant throughout the film is Red Beard himself. Almost always calm and collected, Red Beard is a saintly figure among the community.
The fault that one of the writers had with Mifune's performance was that he did not give the audience the feeling that Red Beard was a deeply troubled individual, and indeed this does not necessarily come through in Mifune's acting.
He shows very little emotion whatsoever throughout the film. Only twice in the film does he become emotional. Once when discussing the government's cuts of his budget and once in his only show of violence as he fights back a mob of men trying to prevent him from taking Otoyo.
Even after he fights the men he tells Yasumoto to tend to them, telling him that such violence is a bad thing. Not even Red Beard is capable of maliciousness on that level.
The film is the culmination of Kurosawa's visual style. His use of multiple cameras, long lenses and long takes had been well established by this time and are used to great effect in this film. The three elements just mentioned all help to free the acting to enhance the film's realism.
This film also presents one of the most realistic Kurosawa sets in his long career. By this time Kurosawa was working with most all of the same crew, and this crew knew everything from the buildings to the dishes needed to be authentic.
It is through these sets that the audience is transported back to the time of the film. If the sets were anything but authentic the sense of realism would fade quickly.
Kurosawa's use of light and dark and his play with shadows are present as well.
More important than any of the visual elements is the film's ideology. In the beginning of Red Beard and Yasumoto's relationship, and Yasumoto and Otoyo's relationship there is a sense of opposition.
But throughout the film the transformations take place until everyone is living in harmony with one another. Even the hospital in the end doesn't seem like such a bad place.
This is the ideal Kurosawa world. A world where everyone is selfless and looking out for one another. Sadly Kurosawa's outlook on life would change in the coming decades, but it is films like Red Beard that he would and should be remembered for.